'She Said, He Said': Stories told through porcelain

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Clay before it's fired is called a body. The minerals and textures that make up the clay — stoneware or earthenware or terra cotta — are clay bodies.

In a spare, sunlit room at Bard College at Simon's Rock, a ceramic vessel folds like a blood vessel, and two women hold each other — and two artists are thinking about what a clay body really means.

Boston-based artist Kathy King and New York artist Matt Nolen are telling stories in porcelain in "She Said, He Said" at the Daniel Arts Center.

They have known each other since the mid-1990s, Nolen said, as he looked over their combined work in the Hillman-Jackson Gallery. They have worked together as artists and colleagues for 25 years, and he missed her presence here as she had to be out of town at the show's opening.

She brought him into this collaboration. Ben Krupka, associate professor of ceramics at the college, has known her work for years, and he reached out to her for this show. He asked for her thoughts, he explained, and she suggested combining Nolan's work with hers.

In this room, she has hung oval porcelain plaques like life-sized cameos sheathed in copper. She coats the porcelain with a dark liquid clay, Nolen said, and cuts through it to draw her images in white on black, like a print.

It is called sgraffito, an Italian, African and classical technique. And she blends it with imagery suggestive of graphic novels, lithographs or etchings.

These works feel like a kind of collage, Nolen said, as his also blend materials, colors and textures and influences. They are different in style but driven by narrative and humor, as hers are.

"She has been so bold about sharing her narratives," he said.

She often thinks and talks about the strength of women, the way women see themselves and the way the people around them see them. And she has drawn openly on her relationship with her wife, and her life as a lesbian. Her wife is a metalworker and a jeweler, Nolan said, and she makes the copper that frames these porcelain portraits.

Her stories have drawn Krupka to her work, and his students will value them, he said. Here, in the one clear narrative involving a relationship, two women hold each other close in the panel near the door.

But not all of her cameos feel as clearly interpreted, to him. On the wall to their left a woman stands alone in motley, and another wears a straitjacket.

On the far wall, a horned male figure with a forked tongue is wearing boxing gloves; one boxing glove pushes outward, and a woman faces it with a tattoo of a stabbed heart on her muscled shoulder. She also wears boxing gloves, and she has a black eye and the orbiting stars that cartoons use to suggest a blow to the head.

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Nolen finds strong feeling and force in them, and his own recent work has also become more personal and emotional, internal. He has brought new work to this show, he said, almost all made this month, since the new year.

He has turned to abstract vessels, more than to image and text. His earlier work was often social or political, he said. He might take inspiration from text in a subway, a line from a poem, contemporary and bizarre fragments that he encountered by chance — what he calls an "Alice in Wonderland Eat-me, Drink-me" kind of free association.

But in 2012, Nolen was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.

"It turned my life upside down," he said. "My work here is driven by my need to live with something, instead of fighting."

The imagery is visceral, literally. It is also surgical. His work carries a tension at times, he said, moving between organic and inorganic, the human body and man-made architecture, hard and soft.

It is meant to be beautiful, accepting and not afraid.

Along one wall he has gathered a set of forms into "Corpus Interruptus Garniture," the interrupted body. Garniture is an 18th and 19th century form, he explained, a collection of objects shown together on a mantle.

A standing vase-form becomes a "Damoclesian Urn" with a sword-like shape hanging above it, holding the pressure of living with something with the potential to fall.

His vessels combine colors and textures. They may move from a blue-and-white porcelain vase with skin or membrane, barnacles, mother of pearl, dark lattices dividing cells.

"I'm a texture person," he said. "I respond greatly to it."

He has worked in clay since 1985, fascinated by the physical elements of ceramics, firing and glazes, surface materials. He likes the brightness of porcelain; it will show many colors and layers of tints.

Ceramics is one of the few mediums where two-dimensional and three-dimensional forms can fuse together, Nolen said. He comes from a mixed background in painting and architecture, and he wanted to work with both.

And the art and craft has lineage going back tens of thousands of years, Krupka said. He also works in wood and other mediums, and clay fascinates him. Almost every culture has developed a form of it. And he will bring students here as he teaches a course on wheel throwing, to think about the form earth and water moving smoothly in their hands.


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